No child learns or develops new skills in exactly the same way as another child. Some children walk earlier, talk later, or sleep through the night faster than others, and that is all part of being a kid! However, when a child takes a very long time to develop a certain skill, or isn’t able to learn that skill at all, these differences can get in the way of participating in school or recreational activities, and living a happy, healthy life. At that point, it is useful to describe a child’s differences in a way that all their doctors, teachers, and family can understand. Those differences are described as developmental disorders, which includes Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
April is Autism Awareness Month. At The Guidance Center this month, we’re joining the conversation and helping to increase understanding of ASD. Our hope is that understanding in our communities leads to compassion and acceptance of all children with ASD.
What is a developmental disorder?
Developmental disorders or (also called neurodevelopmental disorders) describe common delays in child development that are caused by differences in the brain. These include ASD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), learning disorders, motor disorders, communication disorders, and intellectual disability. Each of these disorders bring different challenges for the children who have them, but what makes them alike is that they are all based in the brain.
What is Autism?
Autism, also called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a difference in the way a child’s brain develops. All children with ASD have trouble in two main areas: social communication and restricted and repetitive interests and behaviors. This means that children with ASD have a hard time knowing how to use words, gestures, facial expression, and eye contact to communicate with others, and often get stuck on certain topics or behaviors.
If you have more than one child, you know, every child is different. It’s the same with children who have ASD! Autism is called a spectrum disorder because every child has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some children might have lots of trouble with communication, and fewer restricted interests, while other children might have lots of trouble with both. It’s important to get to know each child with ASD as an individual and find out what supports they need to be successful.
What is social communication?
Social communication is the ability to use verbal (i.e., words) and nonverbal (i.e., expressions, eye contact, gestures) means to communicate your wants and needs to others. It also means understanding others spoken and unspoken communication. This is different from a language delay. With language delays, children have hard time learning and recalling words. On the other hand, children with ASD usually know the words, they just have a hard time using them in social situations. Children with ASD often have delays in the following areas.
- Using and understanding:
- Gestures, like nodding yes and no, pointing, or shrugging.
- Facial expression, for example, smiling when talking about something sad, or misreading other’s emotions.
- Eye contact, for example staring or avoiding eye contact altogether.
- Using and understanding verbal communication, such as:
- Starting and keeping conversations going, or have trouble knowing what topics are okay to talk about and when, and how to answer to questions.
- Understanding other’s emotions and perspectives, including:
- Misunderstanding emotions. For example, thinking someone’s face shows they are angry when they are sad, or having a hard time guessing how someone might feel or think in a certain situation.
- Knowing when other people want to play with or talk to them. For example, ignoring children that talk to them, or avoiding other children.
- Understanding how to behave in places with well understood rules like a grocery store, church or temple, or classroom.
What are restricted interests and repetitive behaviors?
Every child has certain topics they really like to talk about, certain toys they play with all the time, and certain things that get on their nerves. However, in children with ASD, these preferences are much more specific and intense and get in the way of everyday life. Children with ASD may:
- Do the same movements over and over, like rocking, spinning, or moving their hands in certain ways.
- Use certain phrases over and over, or repeat what other people say. For example, responding to “What do you want for dinner?” by saying “What do you want for dinner?”
- Like things to be exactly the same, like daily schedules, furniture, or food.
- Have only a few interests that they are very focused on.
- Be very sensitive to sensory input like noise, touch, movement, lights, or smells.
For example, while most children really like playing video games, a child with ASD who likes video games, might get ‘stuck’ on talking about that game and be unable to move on, insist on playing only one video game, or repeat phrases from the video game in everyday conversation.
How do I know if someone has ASD?
Children with ASD might have some of the traits that were talked about in the examples above, but their delays might also look different. It’s also important to know that having one, or even a few of these traits, might not mean a person has ASD. If you have concerns about your child’s development, it is important to talk to your pediatrician. They will refer you to a clinical psychologist or developmental pediatrician who can test for, and diagnose ASD.
How can I support someone with ASD?
Get to know me for me.
While some things are hard for children with ASD, just like typically developing children, children with ASD also have amazing strengths. They might love art, enjoy nature, or be an enthusiastic reader. Learn what their strengths are and help them shine!
It’s also important not to assume something will be hard, or easy, for a child just because they have ASD. The best ways to learn more about a specific child and their experience with autism is to spend time with them. Spending time with a child who has ASD will help you learn more about what they like, what they dislike, and what helps them feel comfortable and happy.
Use person first language.
Children with ASD are much more than their ASD! When talking about a child’s strengths and difficulties, it is important to many children and families to refer to a child, not their ASD first, by saying ‘a child with autism’ instead of ‘an autistic child,’ or describing a child as ‘autistic.’ This helps everyone remember that the child, not their ASD, is most important, and that ASD is just one part of that child’s life.
Some children with ASD have a hard time starting conversations or joining in on activities. Because of this, it might look like they aren’t interested in spending time with other children. Remember that children with ASD still want to have friends and be included; they just might not know how to make that happen in every situation! Try inviting your friend with ASD to do something specific so they know what to expect. It’s even better if it’s something you know they like to do on their own! Don’t be surprised if they do that activity a little differently than you might, the important thing is that you get to spend time together!
Learn more about ASD.
It’s also important to learn more about ASD in general. You can check out some of the websites below for a good place to start.
- For general information about autism and local resources: https://www.autismspeaks.org/
- For finding therapists in LA and learning how to pay for treatment: http://www.lafeat.org/web/
- For guides and information about education, safety, and testing for ASD: https://researchautism.org/resources/
- For teaching children about what it means to have ASD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtRYKjucDHk and https://researchautism.org/resources/kit-for-kids/#booklets
Michelle Kuhn, MS, is a doctoral psychology intern in The Guidance Center’s Long Beach Outpatient Program, where she helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. She is especially passionate about helping children with anxiety or behavior problems due to developmental differences, experience joy, success, and self-confidence. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2018, Michelle worked with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD, and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders as a pre-doctoral practicum student. Michelle will graduate with her PhD in clinical psychology from Seattle Pacific University this fall.